Living with Awareness: Yoga and the Physicality of Spirituality—An Interview with Judith Hanson Lasater

Judith Hanson Lasater is a yoga teacher of over 40 years, a physical therapist, and the author of 8 widely regarded books on yoga. In this interview, she discusses her perspective of yoga and the physicality of spirituality.

Q. As yoga has become more mainstream, it seems like the emphasis of practice in many cases has shifted toward yoga as more of a physical workout. With this, are we missing out on something?  

Judith Hanson Lasater: There is a famous book called, Your God is Too Small. I think that today, we could say the same thing about yoga. Our yoga is too small in the sense that yoga is so much more than doing asanas on a mat.

Over time, it has become increasingly apparent to me that there is no other way to practice yoga than to live with awareness.

Q. What do you mean when you say “live with awareness”?

Judith Hanson Lasater: Living with awareness means just that. You notice things as they happen, rather than jumping to thoughts and conclusions about them. You notice thoughts as they arise. You notice your feelings as they arise.

This is important because we tend to jump over the feelings straight to the our judgment about the feelings. This lack of connection with the corporeal feeling sense is a problem.

Feelings of irritation, joy, love or boredom arise in us. When you consciously stay with that feeling, stay with the corporeal sensation, you are radically brought into the present moment. Something happens, which I call “the pause”. The pause is a frozen moment in time to remember your highest values. It’s a life pause with a millisecond of self-awareness to recognize– “Oh, I’m not angry. I’m hurt.”

It’s a moment to connect with our own humanity. If we can honestly connect in every situation with our own humanity and spirituality, then we become connected with the humanity and spirituality of others.

Our actions leave a residue in the world. It’s our presence from our deepest selves that is our yoga in action. As we practice yoga through the years, that becomes increasingly automatic.

On a broader level, living with awareness is about recognizing the Atman, the soul—in ourselves and others. This enables us to look with compassion and empathy for ourselves first, and then for the other person.

 It is very important that we recognize the divinity within ourselves, because we have the tendency to talk ourselves out of our feelings instead of being present with them. We’re afraid of our passion because we think if we feel passionately, we have to act passionately, either negatively or positively.

You may also be interested in Judith’s course, Calming the Nervous System: The Art and Benefits of Forward Bends.

Yoga is a cycle of action, reflection, action, reflection. We need the formal practice of Asana, Pranayama, and meditation, but we also need the informal practice of living it: feelings arise, we identify and experience them, and then weave that into the fabric of the moment and tell people our truth.

Often we want to run and hide in Dog Pose. I believe that the mat and the cushion need to be a place of refuge and enjoyment, not so much a place for disciplining ourselves and our bodies.

Q. The clientele coming to yoga has shifted quite a bit over the past decades. Do you still see people coming to yoga because they are looking to deepen into spirituality, or are people mainly coming because they want a good workout?

Judith Hanson Lasater: It all depends on the person. And, in either case, people will gain something from their practice.

There is a story from the Vedas about a village that was experiencing a bad drought. A man came running into village and he said, “There’s a man with a wagon full of water and he’s bringing it to the village. Go get a container quickly.”

Some people got a cup and some people got a bucket and some people got a barrel. It’s the same with yoga. Everyone’s evolving– it’s impossible not to. Do you come to the practice of yoga with a cup or do you come with a barrel?

Being active, be it walking, jogging, or some brisk yoga, is good for us living in our urban world. However, if that’s all yoga is to you, I think you’re missing something.

Q. You talk about the physicality of spirituality. What do you mean by that?

Judith Hanson Lasater: In my own case, initially, I was very interested in the physicality of yoga, and I wanted to learn anatomy and kinesiology and the alignment of poses, so I studied with BKS Iyengar. I then started exploring the psychology of the practice and then the philosophy of the practice. Now, after 46 years of teaching, I’m very interested in what it means to integrate the two.

The physicality of spirituality is about that integration, it is about finding the location where our awareness is clustered and our soul is housed and our power resides. Letting our practice become just physical or just intellectual and jumping over the river of deeply feeling ourselves, is losing sight of ourselves as a manifestation of divinity. We must find that location and listen to what is arising from it.

Q. How can a yoga asana practice help achieve that?

Judith Hanson Lasater: Asana can be practiced as a physical act, a mental act, a psychological act, and a spiritual act.

It isn’t one or the other, it’s all of them at once. The root of our problems is that the mind wants to separate and categorize things, preferably into black and white.

As William Wordsworth wrote, “We murder to dissect.” When we start taking ourselves apart, we lose our self because we’re more than the sum of our parts.

Integration is key. We have moments of integration and enlightenment. It is not an intellectual-only experience. It is a deeply physical experience. Your body vibrates, it hums.

Yoga is about the radical shift in perspective. The shift is not just intellectual, it is also psychophysical, psychological, and emotional. Every fiber of the human being on every energy level, every chakra, all of it shifts.

There’s only one sin in the world and that’s the mistaken belief in separation.

You may also be interested in Judith’s course, Calming the Nervous System: The Art and Benefits of Forward Bends.

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